Spartan Soup Tattoos and How to Avoid Them

There is a Big Bang Theory episode where Sheldon sees Penny naked when helping her after she has fallen in the shower. Sheldon asks why she has the Chinese character for “soup” tattooed on her buttock. Penny says that it isn’t “soup,” it’s “courage.” Sheldon replies that it takes a lot of courage to show that kind of commitment to soup. The first lesson is not to get phrases in languages you don’t know tattooed on your body. The second lesson is to know when you don’t know.

Another example of the same lesson was when we asked an embroiderer for the phrase (transliterated here) “h tan h epi tas” (either this or on this, walk yourself home with your shield or be carried home dead on it…) on a patch, but in a “Greek-y font.” What arrived in the mail looked like:

Screen Shot 2017-03-06 at 11.10.21 PM.png

because he probably used the “Ancient Greek” font from (third lesson, don’t use that font) and did not read the Greek alphabet. The problem, of course, is that this is not H TAN H EPI TAS at all. but is rather more H TLP H SRF TLS. Check the difference:
Screen Shot 2017-03-07 at 10.11.33 AM.png(Guess where I found that? A pinterest page for… Greek Tattoos… As a quick aside here, it must be noted that the Spartans ate something called μέλας ζωμός, “Black Soup.” Paraphrasing – on tasting it, a foreigner from Sybaris said he now understood why Spartans do not fear death, because one should rather die than have to eat that, so maybe there is a correlation between “soup” and “courage.”)

So, instead of being a Laconic phrase extolling the virtue of courage in battle, it’s instead something about transport layer protocol, transport layer security, and/or serum response factor. So, of course, that item did NOT get used, and we learned a valuable lesson about assuming that others are familiar with the Greek alphabet. (Full disclosure: I do not speak or read Greek, but I know the alphabet, so I can sound things out and then go look them up, and I can tell my sigma from my epsilon and why you would turn a iota into a phi for the sake of making a Greek font readable for English readers is baffling.)

So, if you need to make something look “Ancient Greek-y” in the SCA, what should you do? Ideally, become familiar with the Ancient Greek alphabet. This is easier said than done, because while there is now one Greek alphabet (with upper and lower cases), there used to be many regional variations. This is actually a blessing in disguise because this gives you *options* in choosing glyphs that are most readable by people who don’t know the Greek alphabet. (Another disclosure, I am not a scribe and I don’t know the correct words for uprights and cross bars. I’m making this up as I go, because I think it’s cool.) For example, the following is a list of things to be aware of:

  • Modern lambda (L) looks like alpha (A) without the cross bar, but there is a version where it’s flipped upside down and looks more like L.
  • Modern rho (R) looks like English P, whereas pi is the same as the symbol you know as pi in math, but there is a version of rho that has an itty bitty tail.
  • The “cool” E is actually sigma (S). E, epsilon, is just E, but there is a jazzy version with diagonal cross bars.
  • F, phi, is a circle with a vertical line through it. Briefly there was symbol, digamma, that looked like F but apparently was W. If you kick it 90 degrees left, you can kind of see a W.
  • There does not seem to be anything for C, J, Q, or W (now).
  • Y and U are apparently the same letter.

With that in mind, the POINIKASTAS website has a wonderful page – – that groups letter forms by the letter they are representing, so you can decide which version of alpha you would like to use for your A’s. If that sounds like too much work, you can just use this one.(But probably not in Sharpie. I should probably make another one. It was late.) FullSizeRender

It has been used in a few projects such as my first two attempts at calligraphy and a gate sign for camp, but favoring the epsilon with cross bars perpendicular to the uprights over the one pictured above, and it seems readable.

Picture by Clint Gallon


Badges drawn by Rich Fuentes

It isn’t a “real” alphabet – like I said before, I’m not aware of a letter Q, but I did take the earlier letter qoppa (which fell out of use in favor of kappa) into account when “designing” a Q. J is a reverse-lambda. W is an inverted mu. Or you could use a digamma. Your choice. Et cetera. So again, while not “real,” it is an attempt to balance the needs of the English speaker with the needs of staying true to the original alphabet and not getting a Spartan soup tattoo or proclaiming a confusing commitment to TLP/SRF/TLS.

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